In the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, Bill Moyers speaks with Columbia University psychologist Dr. Ian Miller and Dr. Jane Rosenthal, a psychiatrist at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center.
HILLARY STERN: I put myself down to work all day every day when ever they need me. They called me yesterday morning, I went to the recross, they sent me over here, I was here probably about I think the whole day, I didn’t get home until eight. And then I came back at around 10:00. Today and I plan to come back again tomorrow. I feel like I’m coping well. Certainly the shock and the enormity of the situation like I said before is going to sink in over time.
I feel, in some ways I feel really good that I have something concrete to do, that I can sit here and talk to people and help them get through their experiences in some way. I’m just glad I have something to do.
BILL MOYERS: Dr. Ian miller, you’re nodding. You were here yesterday, far into the night last night. What brought you here?
Dr. IAN MILLER: I wanted something concrete to do. And I thought it was important, as a way in which this thing is unreal. And it’s very hard to assimilate. You see visual images, and if you’re not living below 14th street, life appears to go on the way it went on before.
BILL MOYERS: But you’re a psychologist, you’re a clinical supervisor at Columbia University. You have things to do. What brought you down here to get on the front line so to speak of volunteering?
Dr. IAN MILLER: We’re in a situation that needs addressing. We all have to pitch in and take care of it. I don’t, this is a serious matter. It’s a serious emotional matter. And this is very easy to deny it.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean? It’s hard to imagine denying what you see on television all the time, the towers collapsing over and over and over again, the debris, the firemen. And you think we’re in denial?
Dr. IAN MILLER: Absolutely. We begin to close off, I was on the phones last night, and I was struck by the clarity with which people were developing eulogies about people they had seen who were hoping were still alive. But they were encapsulated; they were small memories to hold onto.
I think that the largeness of the situation can get lost. And further, we are barraged, just the news just now, with more and more things that we have to respond to, which are unthinkable. Unthinkable nationally.
We have taken 50 years to just begin to address mourning Pearl Harbor, we had a big movie this summer, and now this. This is the first time the continental United States has been hi since the war of 1812.
BILL MOYERS: You were very touched as you left here last night by what you were being told by people on the phone. How did you get through the night, you personally, not you the psychologist, not you the professor, but how did you as awe human being get through the night?
Dr. IAN MILLER: In large part it was through other people. I was in a group of 18, more or less interchangeable mental health professionals. We had a task, which changed from the time we were at the Red Cross to the time we got here. Everybody got to it. And we were seated in a line.
And as we did our work, we became overwhelmed and we began to talk with one another. And it was like buddies in a fox hole.
BILL MOYERS: What was your work what were you doing on the phone?
Dr. IAN MILLER: We were gathering essential identification data to identify missing persons. We were asking weight, height, length of hair, were there body piercings, were there dental records, things of that nature.
BILL MOYERS: What were you hearing, what were people saying?
Dr. IAN MILLER: People were enormously prepared. They were a bit grateful somebody was responding to them. They were relieved that we didn’t have final information.
BILL MOYERS: They didn’t want to know the definite word, did they?
Dr. IAN MILLER: They did not, no. They were still developing a picture which could go either way. And each one of them was very very particular in the picture that they were developing, the image they had of this trauma.
BILL MOYERS: How so? Give me an example.
Dr. IAN MILLER: The things that we take for granted in daily life were suddenly poignant, real and special. Somebody sent an instant message on their computer to a friend. And the friend,, it was never received. This becomes enormously significant. This is the last moment potentially of somebody’s life. And the living essence of a person is almost crystalized in what people were telling me. And that was enormously riveting.
BILL MOYERS: Jane Rosenthal, Dr. Rosenthal, you teach psychiatry at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. What brought you down here and what did you do?
DR. JANE ROSENTHAL: I think much the same as Ian was saying that, you know, by day psychiatrist, but by night and in front of the television as overwhelmed a person with the magnitude of what is happening to us.
And attempting to understand it, that I think similar to the families that we spoke with last night who were getting very busy collecting photographs, passport photos, scanning them into computers so they could be sent various places for identification, that I think it’s very human to want to get busy when you don’t know what to do.
And I wanted to get busy, so I went to the red cross and sat and sat until we were starting, originally 30 of us, to be sent here, where we worked the phones until we left in a most astonishing state last night, which is that we were evacuated for a bomb threat.
BILL MOYERS: We were still here when that happened, I think we all went out together. Sudden little we’re all sitting around talking, after the broadcast, and suddenly out of the building everybody, the security guards came running through. And it was, it hit home.
DR. JANE ROSENTHAL: I was so surreal, for a moment here we had been asking these families what was the last contact you had with your friend, with your family member, with your father.
You know, and they all reported cell phone calls, where they were told there was a big explosion, but I hear sirens, we’ll be okay, I’m headed down, the stairs, or you know, we’re having some prayer now, and then I’ll be out.
And it was such a visceral thing to hear in the minute detail of these last moments of people’s contact with their families.
And going down the staircase last night as we had to leave here, it felt the boundarylessness of all this, which I think is chat been so shocking the to everybody, is that yes there are those at the world trade center who hopefully will be rescued and returned to their families, but that the boundaryless, there’s no more rules.
And the experience of having to rush down the stairwell last night was so overwhelming. Tremendously overwhelming.
Dr. IAN MILLER: The discussion on the street after the evacuation was wild. Because here was this bunch of mental health workers trying to decide whether to go back to the building after the all clear had been sounded.
And most of us had been on the phones all night, listening to stories of people who returned after the all clear had been sounded. So there was a split in the group about who would go back and who stayed out.
And what we were seeing, what we were experiencing in a very, very mild form, but one that’s similar I think to everybody in New York and probably to most people in this country, is a sense of shock and incredulity and identification with what happened.
BILL MOYERS: My wife and partner went down those stairs together.
But last night as I took her arm, I thought, is this the last time I might be touching her? That wouldn’t have been the case last week. How do we come to terms with this? How do we cope?
Dr. IAN MILLER: We talk. We don’t cope initially in a way that is final and satisfactory. There’s no solution that we can do tomorrow. We begin to express our fear. And one of the things that I’m worried about is that we’re rushing to say that New York has pulled through this, and indeed the spirit that we see among one another, I mean the volunteerism, the enthusiasm with which people are going to do things, to remain bus and I to help out, is heartening, and it’s sometimes un-New York-like.
On the other hand, how do you begin to admit that you’re frightened and you’re scared, you’re terrified. You don’t know where you’re headed. If you want to appear to be strong. And we’ve got to begin to reckon with that.
BILL MOYERS: You have twins. Boys, girls?
DR. JANE ROSENTHAL: Two boys.
BILL MOYERS: How old are they?
DR. JANE ROSENTHAL: Eight.
BILL MOYERS: What are you saying to them about this? What are they asking you?
DR. JANE ROSENTHAL: Well, those are I think the first question is dependent on the second actually. As this has unfolded, I guess the first word that they her was at school.
And there were several kids that were together on Tuesday when we picked them up from school and we thought that why not have a, let the kids have a play date while the adults were watching television, and it was very interesting to see the same 8-year-olds some of whom were wandering in to watch a little snippets on the news, and the others who that planes had crashed into the world trade center, although I think they had any sense of the magnitude, although since they’re little they’ve pointed to the landscape, when we were in new jersey approaching New York, you know, on the through way or they’ll say, world trade center.
So it’s been part of their identifying landscape and part of their world. And I think it’s going to take them a long time to understand what it really means that it’s not there anymore.
But, you know, the capacity that they had and that they have to see a little bit more each day and to understand a little more each day I think is just as confusing to us as parents.
BILL MOYERS: I’ve seen those landmarks, those towers all the time I’ve been here. Now I’ll never see them again. A huge hole has been torn in my landscape, and a huge hole has been torn in many hearts. How do we come to grips with the emptiness at the center of things now?
DR. JANE ROSENTHAL: I think in part that’s, you know, what happened to us yesterday and why we’re here again today after spending last night here talking to families, to each other, Ian and I never met each other before yesterday.
We were in the war room together and waiting to be deployed and we actually were supposed to get on a haven’t to come down here yesterday and the van was stolen from under us because there was a bomb threat somewhere and they needed to take the van to evacuate other people.
So we were told to go back into the auditorium, and it’s an amazing story, the people in our group who had been together waiting to come here, you know, all raised our voices and said we’re not going back into the auditorium, we’re going to get down to the phones where we’re needed.
And we, I guess, talked strenuously and vigorously and someone put us in the van finally and got here.
BILL MOYERS: You were determined to get to the war zone?
DR. JANE ROSENTHAL: There was something that took over, and when we got here we had no idea what to expect.
And I think it was really, for instance through the way that Ian and I talked to each other and tried to metabolize the discussions that –
Dr. IAN MILLER: We talked each other through.
BILL MOYERS: You had not met each other, you were sitting there side by side and what happened?
Dr. IAN MILLER: We would each get phone calls and we would be struck by what was going on in the phone calls, and we would hold them and contain them ourselves.
And then periodically we would sigh, and we would turn to each other, with we weren’t on the phone and begin to talk.
And it’s my notion that the simplest way to begin to cope with this, apart from doing stuff, apart from concrete action, which I think is essential, is to begin to talk.
BILL MOYERS: Even if you live alone as so many people in New York do, we live alone in this city, so many of us.
Dr. IAN MILLER: There are prayer vigils, community centers.
The room at the red cross where most of us sat for 8 or 10 hours was filled with people doing nothing, volunteers who were all in a common experience. And it was amazing what the spirit in that room was.
BILL MOYERS: What did you learn about jane? Just from meeting this person and sitting beside her hearing tale after tale of grief and loss and sorrow and fear, what did you learn about her?
Dr. IAN MILLER: I learned about her ability to contain her anxiety, to hold it, to work with it, to express it. And to move on and to get the job done.
It doesn’t take much if you’re talking to another person, to get a sense of their ability to reset themselves and to move forward. And I watched Jane do it all night.
BILL MOYERS: What did you learn about him?
Dr. IAN MILLER: Well, I might add it didn’t stop last night, you know, with the evacuation we were all separated. We had expected he’d be able to debrief together, and instead when we got to the street everybody was running in different directions.
I knew that Ian had a patient at 7:00 this morning and he knew that I had one at 6:30, because we had talked about it last night, will there be time to shower before we see our patients in the morning.
I had actually walked home up the west side highway with another colleague who was in our group, and I didn’t know where Ian was and I called him this morning at his office and I said, you know did, you get home safe and sound.
And over the course of today we left messages for each other, I think, with some vignettes of what had happened in each of our offices today with our patients.
BILL MOYERS: What happened?
DR. JANE ROSENTHAL: I’m still trying to understand that. You know, these are people that I see regularly. Some for years, some for months, some once a week, some twice a week, some three times a week. Most of them touched in the same way that we are, which is that we know of people who haven’t returned yet, not a family member. But more peripherally.
And yet the grief and the terror and the horror, despite the one or two more degrees of separation from the actual place itself, was so devastating and so overwhelming that even I as a therapist and this is one of the things Ian and I were talking about during the day, found myself in a different kind of posture with my patients.
We were two people talking about something so much bigger than either of us were that I think there was an automatic intimacy. I don’t think there was one of my patients who didn’t say to me, I hope you and yours your all well. Now, that’s not something that is typical, in fact the horrible caricature and stereotype is that you can’t ask a therapist anything and certainly if you do they won’t answer. And today was a different experience.
BILL MOYERS: For you too?
Dr. IAN MILLER: Yes, but in a very different direction. Last night I was taken by the poise of the people I was speaking with. They had people surrounding them by and large, they had discussed what was going on, and, family members.
Moyers: Of missing people.
Dr. IAN MILLER: Yes. And they had begun an active process of preparation for hearing something. They were forced to grapple with the situation, which was very concretely in front of them.
And in my practice today, and it may be that I was sensitized by my experience last night, I thought last night that I was hearing from these people and overly… Calm, collected response. The sadness, the terror was really suppressed.
And I had the hunch that in the days to come, among therapists, this is the talk, things are going to happen, people are going to begin to express themselves in very powerful and very idiosyncratic ways.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
Dr. IAN MILLER: Well, this is what happened this morning, throughout the day with my patients. I found a very, very common kind of response that people have after disasters, especially people who haven’t been immediately affected by situations like this.
Which is that individuals could say, what has happened is horrific, and say it in a deep and heart felt way, but not feel entitled to their own pain, relative to it. That there were people who were closer who should be mourning, I had one person tell me she shouldn’t have come to her session today because somebody else needed it more.
So what I’m afraid of, and especially in light of our probable mobilization as a country in terms of very defensive actions, is that people are going to seal off or wall off their own sense of vulnerability, because it’s easier to do that and to appear…
BILL MOYERS: You mean by identifying with the national state, with what we’re doing as a government in response, people tend to once again to subvert their own individual —
Dr. IAN MILLER: Feelings
DR. JANE ROSENTHAL: No time to think about feelings, it’s time to move into action now. We were listening just before we came in here about writing the check for the work that we’re about to wage. And it’s as if we were talking, it’s as if being prepared now, means that people shouldn’t be focusing on the effect that this has had on them, the emotional effect.
BILL MOYERS: Individuals with the loss the grief, the sorrow that we feel, once again they’ll be sun merged.
Dr. IAN MILLER: Right, let me tell you a story. I did some research some time back on 3-Mile Island.
BILL MOYERS: When the nuclear plant misfired.
Dr. IAN MILLER: Right. And it was my dissertation research. And I found, my question had to do with why do people stay or go. How do they structure danger around them. One of the things that I found was that people had the same reason for going and for staying.
My favorite vignette, it’s sort of weird, is about a dog. I spoke to one woman who stayed because she thought her dog would become disoriented if she evacuated with her dog. And I spoke to somebody else who decided to go because he decided that his dog would become disoriented if he didn’t, if he stayed.
Now both of them were denying that there was any effect on them, in fact the man was leaving his children and his wife, he was just taking his dogs and going. But they had identified so deeply with the animal as a way to get rid of the feeling that they were carrying, and were convinced that this is why they were doing things. We don’t like to carry around feelings that rile us up.
BILL MOYERS: So what do we do, to both of you here in the closing moms of this conversation, do we go on the street and shout I’m mad at hell? Do we go on the street and shout help! Do we go to a prayer vigil? What should I do in this city dealing with all these events?
DR. JANE ROSENTHAL: Why wouldn’t both things be doable simultaneously. We can be busy, on hotlines. We can be busy in our office. But we can also talk to each other about the experience as it’s unfolding. You know, how is that done in a practical manner.
BILL MOYERS: Do you just say I’m scared?
DR. JANE ROSENTHAL: Well, why not. Why not. I don’t think any of us would say, gee, let’s dwell on that for the next 12 hours. You know.
So don’t bother going to work, you know, don’t get on with your life, let’s dwell, I think that’s again a caricature. What we, certainly I, I think I can say we is most concerned about is that while we do have to prepare for what we have ahead, which in the city is certainly a grew some task of continuing —
BILL MOYERS: You think we have a lot ahead of us, coming to terms with this.
DR. JANE ROSENTHAL: I don’t think we’ve started. I don’t think we have words to describe what we’re feeling. I surely don’t. I’ve been trying all day.
Dr. IAN MILLER: I think we have to redefine the notion of strength. If we’re genuinely going to be effective, we have to be able to think to be effective, and if we can’t act says our feelings, we’re blocking at some level and we can’t think.
So we need first to talk some quiet time and to try to come to grips with who we are and what’s going on, and then we need to reach out to somebody and to tell them, even a stranger, it’s the only way to begin to reckon with who we are and who somebody else is.
BILL MOYERS: And your two children do, you do with them? Did you talk to them?
Dr. IAN MILLER: I did not. I was busy here, but i’ve been on the phone with them numerous times.
BILL MOYERS: Do they understand why you were here instead of there?
Dr. IAN MILLER: I don’t know. I mean, they’re young and they can tell me that they do, but I don’t know.
BILL MOYERS: This is unprecedented, isn’t it, we’ve never had anything like this. And I thank you both for coming down yesterday, for being here tonight, and for your contribution to our coping. That’s all we have time for in tonight’s conversation.
Like Gwen Ifill and “Washington Week”, I’ll be back in the coming days with more conversations as part of a PBS American Response series. In closing, we want to share with all of you a poem that was sent to me today by e-mail.
Thomas Hardy’s poem for the victims, and it’s read by the actress, Tandy Cronin.
TANDY CRONIN: It’s former green is blue and thin.
And it’s once firm legs sink in and in.
Soon it will break down unaware.
Soon it will break down unaware.
At night when redest flowers are black, those who once sat there on come back.
Quite a row of them sitting there.
Quite a row of them sitting there.
With them the seat did not break down.
Nor winter freeze them, nor floods drown.
For they are as light as upper air.
They are as light as upper air.
This transcript was entered on April 30, 2015.